Misinformation isn’t just blurring political lines anymore. It’s quietly infiltrating our shopping trolleys in subtle ways, shaping our decisions about what we buy and who we trust.
Spurred by political events,
misinformation has garnered widespread media coverage and academic research.
But most of the attention has been in the fields of political science, social
psychology, information technology and journalism studies.
More recently though, misinformation
has also gained traction among marketing and consumer experts. Much of that
research has focused on the direct impacts of misinformation on brands and
consumer attitudes, but a new perspective on the topic is now emerging.
What if the influence of
misinformation extends beyond explicit attacks on brands? What if our choices
as consumers are shaped not only by deliberate misinformation campaigns but
also by subtle, indirect false information?
My own research has explored the
dynamics of misinformation from a consumer standpoint. I have looked at how
misinformation spreads, why people find it credible and what we can do to try
to mitigate its spreading. However, my latest study looks at direct and
indirect forms of misinformation and their consequences for brands and
consumers. I have found that one of the major consequences of these types of
misinformation is the erosion of trust.
Direct and indirect misinformation
Misinformation comes in direct and
indirect forms. It can be direct when it purposefully targets brands or their
products. Examples of direct misinformation include fabricated customer reviews
or fake news campaigns targeting brands.
It was fake news that led to the ‘pizzagate’
scandal in 2016, for example. This involved unsubstantiated accusations of
child abuse against prominent individuals linked to a Washington DC pizzeria.
While last year, the brand Target was falsely accused of selling ‘satanic’
children’s clothes on social media.
The consequences of direct
misinformation can be far reaching, leading to a breakdown in brand trust. This
erosion is particularly pronounced when misinformation originates from
seemingly trustworthy sources, forcing brands into crisis management mode.
For example, in late 2022, Eli Lilly’s
stock price fell by 4.37% after a fake Twitter account impersonating the
pharmaceutical company falsely announced that insulin would be given away for
free. Investors were misled and the company was forced to issue multiple statements
to regain their trust.
But beyond the realm of blatant brand
attacks, lies a subtler, less understood territory that I call ‘indirect
misinformation’. This type of misinformation doesn’t zero in on specific
companies, but instead cloaks itself in issues like politics, social affairs or
The constant exposure to
misinformation around issues like COVID-19 and politics can have a ripple
effect. And my research, which reviewed the academic marketing literature on
direct and indirect misinformation, argues that this constant barrage has the
potential to impact consumer choices.
Consider the two distinct levels where
these effects unfold for a company. At the brand level, reputable names may
unwittingly find themselves entangled in disreputable fake news sites through
programmatic advertising, in which automated technology is used to buy ad space
on these websites. And while the misinformation itself might not directly
impact brand trust, the association with dubious websites can cast a shadow
over attitudes to brands. It can also impair consumers’ intentions towards the
Simultaneously, at the consumer level,
the impact of indirect misinformation is profound. It breeds confusion, doubt
and a general sense of vulnerability. Continuous exposure to misinformation is
linked to decreased trust in mainstream and traditional media brands, for
Consequently, people might become wary
of all information sources and even fellow consumers. Subconsciously influenced
by misinformation, they may make different purchase decisions and hold altered
views of brands and products.
What can brands do?
While the negative repercussions of
direct misinformation on brand trust have been well documented, shining a light
on the subtler impacts of indirect misinformation marks a crucial step forward.
It not only opens new avenues for researchers but also serves as a warning to
brands. It urges them to be more proactive in their approach to misinformation.
If indirect misinformation makes
consumers mistrustful and sceptical, brands could take pre-emptive measures.
Tailoring specific marketing communications to instil trust in brands, products
and offers, becomes paramount in a world where trust is continually under
siege. Building - and maintaining - a reputation for trustworthiness is
essential for companies.
As we navigate this terrain of hidden influences, the call for a more comprehensive understanding of misinformation’s multifaceted impacts also becomes clearer. Researchers, brands and consumers alike need to decode the hidden messages of misinformation. This could help to fortify the foundations of trust in an era where it has become a precious commodity.
Giandomenico Di Domenico
Lecturer in Marketing and Strategy
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license